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But surely if anyone was capable of summoning what swimming geeks call “outside smoke,” it was Phelps.What we got instead of a duel was a “damp squib,” as someone told the BBC.Phelps’s lousy preliminary heat had deprived us of the familiar camera shot where the two Americans collapse toward one another, across the same middle-lane divider, looking up at their times.As the eighth and final qualifier, Phelps would be swimming from an outside lane, exposed to the reverberating wake of the others.

Phelps, finding his stroke, appeared to regain momentum.No one had really expected him to sweep the board again, and he still had six races left to swim, but suddenly it was possible to imagine that he might not earn even the three medals required to surpass the Soviet gymnast Larysa Latynina as the most decorated of all Olympians.“This is my time,” Lochte said afterward, wearing a diamond-encrusted dental supplement, and slyly undermining Phelps’s legacy by referring to him as “one of the world’s greatest swimmers.” I couldn’t help thinking that the real breakout star of the four-hundred-metre individual medley was a Qatari man named Ahmed Ghithe Atari—Atari the Qatari—who swam in the morning qualifying round.Atari never had a shot at qualifying for the evening session.British pride would never bend to NBC’s will, as the Chinese had, so the big race was set for Saturday night, Greenwich Mean Time, and promised to be the hottest ticket of the week.Whether Phelps’s morning scare was to blame for the scattered empty seats as the start time approached or whether the new practice of following the Games on Twitter was threatening to supplant live attendance was hard to say. tried to coax the spectators into making noise, but many of them—in the athletes’ section, in particular—were too busy holding their i Pads up to film the pool.

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